With each issue, Trib+Water brings you an interview with experts on water-related issues. Here is this week's subject:
James Griffin, the Bob Bullock Chair in Public Policy and Finance at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, was the faculty director on a report that was recently included in the "The Takeaway," a publication of the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics and Public Policy at the Bush School. The study made several policy recommendations for dealing with a potential water shortage in the Eagle Ford Shale.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Water: What would you say is the biggest takeaway from this report?
James Griffin: The important conclusion that our study came to really dealt with this fact that there is a lot of brackish water, particularly in the Eagle Ford area. There’s a huge aquifer, and a good portion of that aquifer has brackish water in it, which is really not useful for much of anything — but it works fine for fracking.
But the problem is you need to incentivize the companies to drill deeper, to drill a brackish well, which is more expensive to drill than a fresh groundwater well. So the real takeaway from our big report was that this problem is solvable with a fairly minor incentive and public recognition of firms that are willing to cut back on their use of fresh water. You publicly recognize them, and give them a fairly minor incentive. The minor incentive is enough to tip the balance and get them to drill deeper, use the brackish water, and everybody’s happy.
We got to find ways to utilize brackish groundwater — and this would cause firms to invest in technology that might get us away from using water altogether as a tracking agent.
Trib+Water: Could you see this being something lawmakers take up next session?
Griffin: I hope so. I hope they would look seriously at this issue of publicly recognizing firms that are committed to reducing their fresh groundwater use and the tax incentive idea. I think it might make a difference — I’m hopeful.
Trib+Water: What do you think are some of the potential impacts on the state’s water supply if something doesn’t change?
Griffin: Well, it’s going to be localized, No. 1. It’ll be in the Eagle Ford area. It’ll be a localized problem, but nevertheless it will have its impact. We got a problem to start with — if you add the irrigation uses, and the municipal and industrial uses together, that’s way more than the fracking. But fracking is going to contribute to the problem. So to the extent we can, we need to incentivize a different behavior.
Trib+Water: Fracking can be such a hot-button topic — how do you think this idea should be perceived by people?
Griffin: I think if people think about it, and think, "Gosh, if we could incentivize these people to behave differently," they’d think, "Well, gosh, that’s a really good idea." The problem with holding a gun to their head and saying, "Thou shall not use fresh groundwater," there are some areas of the Eagle Ford where the brackish groundwater may not be available. That’s one of the things that we found, particularly down in Webb County. It would really pose a problem for some areas.
That’s why I think it’s better to give people a choice. It wouldn’t cost the taxpayer a lot in terms of lost revenue, and that’s what I like about the proposal. You want to try to do cheap things that make a difference. This is one of those examples that will tip the balance.